Credit union sign on brick building

It’s Time to Practice ‘Place’

Academics, scholars and policy experts have for some years debated mobility and place as they affect poverty, security, migration and social consequences. Such discussions are urgent and important, but I want to focus instead on the psychology of personal mobility vs. the psychology of personal space and place. To the extent that personal attitudes toward mobility and place impact the environment, it is useful to ask whether mobility has been overrated and is thereby distorting how our metro is physically developing.

If ever a word meant different things to different people, “mobility” is it. Social, economic, physical? Mode? Equitable? All those meanings and more. But all, you might say, have one thing in common: Mobility is good. The more, the better.

So, just as a thought experiment, suppose the following: that the opposite of mobility — staying in one place, supporting the neighborhood you live in — might have equal or even greater benefits.

Until quite recently in evolution, human mobility has been either very limited, very expensive or unavailable. To be sure, a great many humans have been nomadic for long periods of evolution, but the speed of that mobility was that of walking.

Today, humans are on the other side of a vast revolution in mobility. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, we have gone from the speed of walking to the speed of jetliners. “Local,” in times hardly past, meant “within walking distance.” Now, it means “within driving distance.” But still, that’s good in a society that values individualism and the right to go anywhere, anytime.

High-powered experts trade on this. A simple Google search produces papers and a website, for example, from Deloitte, one of the world’s Big Four accounting firms, offering “integrated mobility solutions” serving both goods and people, as a way of “rebooting cities.”

I suggest that this most granted of assumptions — that mobility is an unqualified benefit — should not be granted. The most obvious — though paradoxically unacknowledged — proof of this is our failure to address climate change fast enough. Our mobility revolution is killing the climate we humans require to survive, because our modern mobility is still directly and indirectly proportional to the burning of fossil fuels which, reputable scientists agree, is sending us to catastrophe.

Walkable stores and shops abound in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul.

Almost overlooked is a solution hidden in plain sight: Place. How about we humans rediscover, acknowledge, value the idea — and the practice — of place above mobility?

Why It’s Worth Staying Put

A recent movement — already much maligned and denounced by those with opposing agendas— is the 15-minute city. It means, simply, that all one’s necessities — clinic, grocery, library, school — should be within a 15-minute walking or, perhaps, cycling distance from home. MAGA people and those like them love to jeer this as government overreach — black helicopters coming after your right to mobility. If they weren’t so powerful, I would take that as encouragement.

Is the timing right for a return to place? It could be argued that involuntary pandemic lockdowns are not a prelude to reduced mobility demand, but it must also be recognized that remote work and delivered purchases mean more and more people are spending more and more of their time at home, in one place. Furthermore, today’s influencers are not motorheads. They travel by screen. When they do move about, many prefer bicycles, transit or — speaking of the 15-minute city — walking.

Add to this that mobility itself is becoming too expensive for public or personal budgets, especially those of young adults just starting out and seniors on reduced retirement income. Personal vehicles average $12,000-plus each per year (AAA), new off-street parking adds thousands to rents and condo prices (“The High Cost of Free Parking by Donald Shoup), roads built 50 years ago need replacement, and new rail transit in the United States carries with it extraordinary, unanticipated per-mile costs and overruns. So rather than spend public and private billions expanding mobility, would it not make sense (cents?) to make our places much more worth staying put?

A personal example: The recent blockbuster “Civil War” was showing at a newer VIP Megaplex 13 miles into the exurbs from my front door (no transit available) — or a one-block walk down my alley in Highland Park to the 1940s neighborhood screen whose marquee lights I can see blinking from my garage apron. The catch? Public demand — and neighborhood support — is not there to infill hundreds of new households in homes within a quick walk of all the services I have within sight of my particular house.

And so we keep building mobility, not place. We live as nomads, when all the pastures are not greener, but rather the same — the same franchise stores, highways, culture, lawns. Counterintuitively, if more people had less mobility, local idiosyncrasy might be freed up to individualize our places, weaving a richer fabric of life and community. This could, in fact, make mobility more rewarding, offering greater diversity close to home, place by place. Regional travel could mean something more than exchanging one identical highway for another.

Consider, as analogy, what happens when evolution is confined to an island. Indigenous species evolve differently from relatives across the water. All the wonders of the Galápagos would not exist but for their isolation.

We humans might be much improved if we suffered less homogeneity. A paradoxical  proposition in our parlous, polarized times perhaps but, actually, this one prescription — the variegation that comes from sustained experience of place —  might save us all from the relentless atomization of American life that comes with ever-increasing mobility.

Righting Past Wrongs

But you protest, air and water and birds and invasive species — nature itself, of which ever brick and tool we make is a part — knows no boundaries. Don’t we have divisions enough without enshrining place as a creator of difference?

Well, remember the Doctrine of Discovery, built on the idea that natives outside Europe were so primitive as to be nonhuman, defining much of the non-European world as “new,” meaning empty for the taking.

The pendulum may be ready to swing back. I hope so. The spread worldwide of a single social value — consumption — is obviously leading humanity, along with Nature itself, to extinction, and the young know this.

Reinstating place above mobility will not be easy. Since canals boomed, then railroads, then bicycles, then rail transit, then autos and roads, and finally airplanes, our institutions have tailored themselves and us to travel. Zoning still forces most Americans into daily motion to meet our routine needs. It has put housing and services out of reach from one another without a car. Our entire landscape is built that way.

In a place world, every household can go marketing on foot every day — or even several times in a day. Those library books and disks that can fill a retiree’s days or evenings are just a block or two away. The bank or credit union is around the corner. The school is up the avenue just barely out of sight from the porch. Building and zoning and tax codes have grown to incentivize proximities. Humanity once again lives and practices place. Society heals. The town and the city heal. We and the ecosphere survive.

Dream on, you say. I do. We must pause our perpetual motion. We are overworked. We are overstressed. We need rest. We need to practice place — place as the engine of community.

Photos by Mathews Hollinshead

Mathews Hollinshead

About Mathews Hollinshead

Pronouns: he/him

Mathews has been focused on transit advocacy in the Twin Cities for three decades and served as a transit modal representative on the Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board for six years. He lives in St. Paul within a few minutes’ walk of almost every need. He is a co-founder of Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit.